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The Secret Life of Ant Colonies

The thought of an ant colony usually brings to mind a queen ant ruling over her loyal subjects. She sends them out to get food. She makes them take care of the babies. And she ensures that new eggs are produced so the colony can grow. But this isn’t exactly how it works. 

Yes, the queen ant is considered the leader of the ant colony but she is not actively controlling the actions of the rest of the ants. 

Ant Colony Organization

Ants are social insects who organize in colonies of varying sizes. The colony size depends on the ant species, the climate where they are living and the age of the colony.

Every single ant in the colony belongs to a caste, each with a specific role so the colony can thrive and grow. These roles change over time, with younger ants working closer to the queen to protect her and the new offspring. 

The ant colony caste system includes:

  • Queen: Most ant colonies have a single queen. She is the largest ant in the colony. Even though she has wings, her location is deep within the nest to ensure her protection from predators. Her primary job is to lay thousands of eggs.
  • Drones (reproductive males): Drones are the reproductive males of the colony and their single mission is to mate with the queen. Their lifespan is usually only about one week, since they die soon after mating. They have wings but drones do not usually venture outside of the nest. Drones are smaller than Worker Ants.
  • Worker Ants (non-reproductive females): Worker ants are sterile females. They do not have wings and they do not lay eggs. Their role in the colony is both caretaker and defender. They take care of the brood and forage for food for themselves and the other ants in the colony. They are in charge of nest construction and maintenance and also of defending the nest from predators. They live anywhere from a few weeks to one year.
  • Brood: The brood is the term used for the stages of the ant from fertilization to pupae. The fertilized egg hatches into a larvae and the worker ants fulfill their role of feeding and caring for them as they grow to the pupae stage and eventually emerge as adult ants. 

When the future queens of the brood emerge as adults, they take a nuptial flight, leaving the nest in search of a drone to begin building a new colony.

There are rare instances when a colony does not have a queen and offspring are produced by egg-laying worker ants. Even though these worker ants are able to lay eggs, their offspring are sterile.

Ant Colony Structure

The structure of the nests an ant colony inhabits is incredibly elaborate. These nests are created in a variety of locations, including underground, in trees and even in buildings. The workers create intricate networks of tunnels and chambers. The ants then carry out their roles in the safe haven of the chambers, working together for the health and survival of the colony.

Communicate to Survive

Ants have what is called a “collective super mind” that allows them to solve complicated problems together. They do this in a variety of ways, using the information provided by each member of the colony:

Rubbing antennae: When two ants meet, they communicate their roles to each other by rubbing antennae. 

Releasing pheromones: Ants will release pheromones – a chemical scent – to signal to each other. Sometimes it’s to tell each other where food is located. Other times it’s a reminder of the location of the nest. It’s even a way to identify fellow members of the colony.

Sounds and body language: If there is a danger, some ants will make a squeaking sound or tap their heads on hard surfaces to alert others in the colony. 

These behaviors allow the colony to decide what to do as a whole to survive. They may decide to hide in their nest. They may decide to expand their search for food. Or they may choose to divide their colony to avoid a threat. All of these collective actions are determined by this sharing of information between individual ants.

Working Together for the Common Good

Ant colonies are impressive examples of a society working together toward a common goal for their collective good. Have you ever noticed a line of ants, each carrying the tiniest spec of food? There is power in their numbers with each ant doing their part to carry food back to the nest for the colony.

When Ants Come Marching In…To Your Home

It’s one thing to observe a line of ants marching back to their nest. It’s another to discover that a nest is in your home.

You may be tempted to try an ant spray or set up bait traps but that might only make the problem worse. These DIY tactics could trigger a warning signal back to the ant colony, causing them to set up a second location within your home.

If you notice ants within your home, give us a call. Our experienced technicians will make sure your home is ant-free quickly and safely. Call 215.799.2010 or contact us to get started.


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